November 23, 2017

Matthew Tan: Don’t be blind to the paradoxes of faith

When it comes to God, the visage might be beautiful but nowhere near as interesting as God himself, who will always escape our attempts to box him in. PHOTO: Nine Kopfer

In living out the Christian life, there will certainly come a time when giving an apologia or explanation of the faith will become necessary, when either questions are asked or challenges posed to its central tenets.

When these times come, Christians can be understandably enthusiastic about providing the best possible case for the faith. Sometimes, the same apologetic impulse can drive theological discussions within the Church.

What is becoming increasingly apparent, however, is that in the drive to protect the truths of Christianity, there is a tendency to equate truth with internal consistency.

Assure oneself of internal logical consistency, many think, and one can be assured of the truths of the faith that have been handed down to us as well.

In the enthusiasm to shore up internal consistency to defend the faith against questions, many seem not to question the extent to which the methodology giving primacy to internal logical consistency springs forth from sources at odds with the faith.

In a past instance of apologetics, one presenter considered it a triumph when he showed how it was possible to establish a Christian claim with a logic so watertight that it did not make any reference to the Christian God.

Such strategies might be a good display of mental dexterity, but they also risk reducing the sheer splendour of Divine revelation to the confines of human philosophy.

Catherine Pickstock of Cambridge University has clearly identified this problem.

In her seminal text After Writing, Pickstock argues that the drive for internal consistency is not characteristic of the Ancient Church.

Instead, the primacy given to internal consistency is a tendency springing from the wells of the Enlightenment, particularly the philosophy of René Descartes.

By contrast, truth and wisdom in the Ancient Church were grounded not so much in consistency but in their necessary relation to the Triune God.

To use Platonist terminology, the truth is more truthful the more it participates in God, particularly in the incarnate Word of God who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”.

The Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac reminded us that if we were to draw from the peculiarly Christian sources – Scripture and Tradition – we find that God, the Christian tradition and the Church are more properly understood as being steeped in paradox.

In his essay ‘The Church: from Paradox to Mystery’, de Lubac writes of paradox defining the Church with these words:

What a paradox indeed this Church of ours presents!

How real a paradox! What a wealth of contrasting aspects her history offers, each refusing to be neatly catalogued!

Soon to reach her two-thousandth birthday she can look behind her to such a succession of changes, developments, crises, metamorphoses …

Multiple or multiform, she is nonetheless one, of a most active and demanding unity. She is a people, the great anonymous crowd and still — there is no other word — the most personal of beings.

Catholic, that is, universal, she wishes her members to be open to everything and yet she herself is never fully open but when she is withdrawn to the intimacy of her interior life and in the silence of adoration.

We can similarly see paradox in the theological tropes that we use to make sense of the God we worship: God is three yet one, God transcends creation and yet is in creation.

Jesus, the Word of God, is the Lamb who is the “Lion of Judah” (Rev 5:5), who ascends his throne as an executed criminal and who, in the words of the Eastern Paschal Troparion, “descended into the Tombs and from death gave us life”.

The Church, as the extension of the second person of the Triune God, is similarly a paradox – both human and divine, both a “gift from above and a product of this earth”.

This is not to say that logical consistency is thereby cast out.

St John Paul II reminds us that Reason and Faith must always correlate to one another.

While there is plenty in the deposit of faith that is able to satisfy the longings for intellectual cogency, it is limiting – even to the point of apostasy – to confine the depths of Divine Revelation merely to what inner consistency can deliver.

De Lubac pointed out that there will come a time when, to really plunge into the depths of Divine Mystery – be it God, His word, or the Church He founded – it will become necessary to realise that  the clearest expositions are but “false analogies” standing at the “cul-de-sac of mystery”, a mystery “beyond the reach of my natural intelligence”.

The splendour of truth becomes more splendid, the more it is grounded in a God who is paradox, and in the life of a Church which is a living paradox.

What is needed is for logical consistency to sit in tension with paradox.

This tension should then, as the Orthodox bishop and theologian Kallistos Ware says, alert us that our inquiry should lead us to God, who is “not so much an object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder”.

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